On Jinx Birds and the Great Snowy Owl and Bighorn Sheep Conspiracy

Most birders are familiar with the concept of a “jinx bird”. A jinx bird is a species that you have made repeated efforts, often over many years, to see. It is one where you have shown up repeatedly at locations where the species has been reported, and it has always just left the area right before you show up. What’s worse is there often still birders there, getting ready to leave, who tell you excitedly about the bird they just observed until it flew away. It is one where the absence of the species on your life list of birds observed makes absolutely no sense whatsoever. It is often one that you eventually find when you are least expecting it.

For more years than I care to recount, the Snowy Owl was my official jinx bird. This species that breeds primarily on the Arctic tundra winters regularly in Ohio, especially on Lake Erie. An irruptive species, in some years they are almost common along the Lake Erie. In almost all years, the birds are reliably found at several coastal locations. As a very active birder who frequently birded those locations in the winter, and often chased the species when it was reported elsewhere, the many years this species was not on my life list was almost unconscionable. While constantly missing this bird at its regularly wintering spots while observing tons of other rarities was bad enough, the following are some highlights from my memories of chasing this species:

  • A pair of Snowy Owls had spent several months hanging out openly on the beaches and nearby buildings at Maumee Bay State Park, seen almost daily. I finally ventured up there with my father. The birds had been seen the previous day. When we arrived at the park, we searched the area for about twenty minutes and found nothing. We finally found a park ranger and asked him about it. He said he saw them fly away about a half hour before we got there. They were never seen again.
  • A single Snowy Owl had been observed for about a week in a farm field in the middle of nowhere, Ohio. I finally had a weekend day off and drove to the site. As I pulled up, there were at least twenty birders preparing to leave. They informed me that the bird had just flown away right before I arrived. It was never seen again.
  • On one of our regular birding trips to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan, where Snowy Owls are relatively common in most years, we observed a ton of rarities, including close looks at the only Great Gray Owl reported there that winter (due to my friend’s research on their potential occurrence on Neebish Island and how to get there on an ice breaker). We also observed several Harlequin Ducks. We saw no Snowy Owls. Another group of birders from Ohio went up separately that same weekend and covered the exact same areas we did. They saw more than a dozen Snowy Owls on their trip.

When did the jinx finally end? It ended one late spring day in eastern Ohio. It was, at the time, the latest record for Snowy Owl in the state of Ohio. It was an immature bird hanging out at the Heath Airport on May 27, 1997. It was phenomenal to watch a Snowy Owl while hearing Yellow Warblers sing and wearing shorts and a short sleeve shirt. After that observation? I started finding Snowy Owls on a regular basis at the known haunts for the species along the lake, with my high count being nine different birds between Cleveland and Toledo.

While I am an avian biologist and birder, I am every bit as interested in seeing all wildlife. It is very commonplace for me to end an outing being far more excited by seeing some species of mammal or reptile than any of the birds observed that day. I see no logical reason, then, why a birder’s jinx bird can’t be mammal. With that said, the “Marcus England Jinx Bird” mantle was picked up the illustrious Bighorn Sheep.

Like the Snowy Owl, through the early part of this year there was no logical reason whatsoever for me to have not seen a Bighorn Sheep. Indeed, I have spent many days in the mountains of southern California, where they are known to occur, looking specifically for the species. I’ve even spent time at “Bighorn Sheep Observation Areas” in the Rocky Mountains, with my wife patiently (I think) waiting in the car as I scanned the mountains with my spotting scope in furtherance of my fruitless effort. I was frustrated by my running friends cell phone pictures of bighorns observed in the same spots I was just in. One of my employees liked to taunt me with “bighorn selfies”, referring to himself as the “Bighorn Whisperer”. We planned to join a bighorn census in the San Gabriels, but were concerned I’d cause that year to be the first no bighorns were recorded. Seriously.

Finally, in March 2015 while conducting a raptor survey over an area that extended from the high desert, through the San Gabriel and San Bernardino mountains, and south to the Inland Empire, I get to see my first Bighorn Sheep. But… I don’t spot it. We had just arrived in a canyon above the village Lytle Creek with tall peaks all around. I was setting up my spotting scope to scan the peaks for raptors. The biologist I’m with is scanning with his binoculars.

“I think there’s a deer on that mountain top.”

I knew immediately that it wasn’t a deer. I finally got my scope arranged and looked up to see a lone male Bighorn standing on a rock outcropping, surveying his domain.

While that was exciting, it wasn’t *my* Bighorn Sheep. That finally came to pass last weekend as I was running on Mt. Baldy. Descending the Backbone Trail off the main peak, I hear a noise close by. I look up to see a male, female, and immature bighorns running away. I stopped. They stopped. They went back to feeding. I snapped some photos with my cell phone. I now expect I’ll see them on a regular basis.

What’s next. I have no idea. I have nothing that I would currently consider a jinx bird. I guess I need to get out and go find one.

Bighorns on Baldy. Photo by Marcus C. England.
Bighorns on Baldy. Photo by Marcus C. England.

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